Enter Lady Moe
A few days into August and it was common knowledge that those unrelenting missions between July 24-30 were being chronicled as "Blitz Week." The 96th was commended by Lt. Gen. Jacob Devers because it had flown missions six days out of seven. Almost simultaneously another commendation came from the RAF's Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshall Portal. It read:
"I have been following with deep interest and appreciation the work of your bombers during the past week of intensive operations. Their penetration day after day into the heart of Germany in the face of the desperate defense of the enemy has been extremely impressive and I cannot help feeling that your crews, by their gallantry and stamina and by their skill of bombing and shooting, have so truly laid the foundation on which an overwhelming daylight offensive will be built up as your forces grow in numbers." Signed, PORTAL, CAS.
These words, seemingly a flowing tribute, were politically astute. In fact, however, the British had some very serious reservations about the efficiency of American bomber power. And the consequences of Blitz Week did not do much to erase those reservations. Blitz Week had cost the 8th 100 aircraft and 90 crews. The 8th's trained crews had decreased from 300 to a low 200. The cost to the 96th Bomb Group alone had been 12 planes and 10-plus crews! To make matters worse, when 8th AF Intelligence reported these combined casualities, they tacked on the startling information that the Luftwaffe had increased its interceptor planes on the Western Front from 270 in April to 600 as August began.
During the first week in August at Snetterton, exhaustion was the order of the day. By July's end the group had completed 23 missions . . . 5 of them (or 25%) in the last seven days. Crews who had made these missions and survived were damn proud -- but tired. On the other hand, Bill Thorns' diary tells us how deeply the losses were affecting the spirit and the strength of the group.
"So far, out of our squadron (338th) we have lost 5 of our original 9 crews. We've lost Pelusi, Rossman, Haltom, Walters and Deshotels! Gosh, but they were swell guys!"
Many original crews who had survived to this point were classic cases of combat fatigue. Consequently, all over East Anglia the "old timers" were being scheduled for rest homes where they could relax for seven days in the hopes of shedding the battle-rattles. The 96th had use of the Palace Hotel in Southport, Lancashire which, like most "flak-homes," was on the west coast.
Captain Herbert C. Allen, Flight Surgeon of the 338th, explained the psychological considerations for an airman:
"There are three stages in the psychological history of aircrew over their 25 mission period. During the first seven missions the airman is likely to develop fear-reactions, inability to sleep, nervousness, and to acquire imaginary ailments. However, after he has passed the first stage, the man begins to complain of seeing burning Fortresses going down in flames. At this point, he is sent to a 'Flak Home' or rest resort where he can relax in complete peace for a week. Returning refreshed, he goes through his last few missions without difficulty except for an eagerness to complete his 25th mission, and with it his first combat tour of duty."
Captain Allen, at the time he wrote this psychological study, had missions to his own credit. He firmly believed that the missions he had been on had been of inestimable help to him in understanding his wards.
"If you participate in missions," Doc Allen explained, "and undergo the pressures that the airmen do, you can understand their problems a lot better and advise them accordingly. For instance, on one occasion I was having a drink with a flying captain who seemed to take every mission in stride. Suddenly I heard splintering and saw the captain's hand all bloody. Though he claimed to have crushed the glass accidentally, I had him on the way to a rest home the next day . . ."
Even after a full year of combat, the 96th was to have the best Group Psychological Record . . . only three men removed from the air-war for mental reasons. Doc Allen swears this happened because the Flight Surgeons flew regularly with the men. Five surgeons of the group had piled up a total of fifteen missions even though they were not expected to participate.
Meanwhile, back at the base, civilian construction workers were ending their project. The open areas between the huts were being leveled, graded and grassed. But 96ers had often ignored the concrete pathways, preferring to shape their own short-cut paths. Notices were posted everywhere threatening various measures of punishment in the hope of "shaping up" the short-cutters so that newly-sown grass could establish itself. It was a losing battle. What the short-cutters didn't spoil, the rain washed away.
On August 5th, Bill Thorn's diary reminds us of the inclement weather as well as the Big One his crew had been training for: "Very, very poor weather lately. We've got a trick up our sleeves and are waiting for the right time to spring it."
Thus two weeks of August passed in almost leisurely fashion. Medium bombers, B-26 Groups, harassed Luftwaffe fields in France. There were no raids for the heavies. New crews, the first of the provisional replacements, began flying practice missions while the bloodied vets rotated in and out of rest homes. An entry in Bob Woods' diary is typical of this early August peace: "All week quite uneventful . . . playing cards, writing letters, etc. Some days ground school . . ."
On the 9th, Bill Thorns and the rest of Major Kenny's Fertile Myrtle crew found that they had been restricted to base. Thorns was disappointed. He had a date waiting in London.
It was the calm before the storm.
Something BIG had been brewing for some time. First, certain bombardiers knew it; then a few navigators and finally a few crews. All were pledged to secrecy.
On August 10, Thorns' diary again expresses the tension building up about the forthcoming adventure:
"Damn! We started on that big mission we've been training for, but were recalled!" It was probably just as well, because Bill's diary hints of more relaxing things later that same day. "Had a squadron party tonight . . . free drinks and food. WAACS, WAAFS, ATS and civilian girls . . ."
When good weather in East Anglia permitted a raid on the 12th, operable planes were still at such a premium that Major Kenny's crew (theoretically relieved from combat until the "Big One") were among those alerted.